The Fifth Son

Posted on Thursday 10 July 2008

“Today is my birthday you know,” said Hank, an older gentleman and regular at my beach bar.

“Seriously?” I asked. I had been nursing my glass of wine, chatting with the cast of regulars, including Hank, and this was the first mention he’d made of it being his birthday.

“Did you know it was Hank’s birthday?” I turned to ask Hank’s joke-sparring pal who was sitting on the other side of me.

“Bullshit, Hank. It’s not your birthday,” laughed the young man more than half Hank’s age.

“It is, right?” I asked Hank.

“Yes indeed,” he said, but he spoke so softly, I knew I was the only one who’d heard his answer.

“He says it is, for real,” I said to the younger man, feeling like I was their translator as I sat between them.

“You are so full of shit, Hank,” said the younger man, laughing as he leaned forward to talk over me and directly to Hank . “Let me see your ID, then.”

Hank looked uneasy. And he never looks uneasy. “No. Never mind.”

“See, it’s not his birthday,” laughed the younger man.

“I heard from every one of my children except Number Five Son,” Hank said a moment later as he stared down at his beer. “Why is it the ones you don’t hear from who mean the most?”

I regarded Hank’s lanky form, his modified Army crew-cut hair style, his plaid short-sleeved shirt. He seemed hunkered down this evening, not at all his usual corny-joke-telling self. “Maybe he’ll still call,” I offered, but it was already after 10 p.m. Number Five Son was a likely no-call on his dad’s birthday.

“No, I don’t think so,” Hank said, standing. “Excuse me just for a moment.” And he strode inside.

“Hey,” I said to the younger man. “It really is his birthday, I know it.”

“Nah, he’s just messin’ with you.”

“I really don’t think so,” I said.

We both looked up as Hank walked back outside a minute later, a fresh pack of cigarettes in hand.

“Hank, man, show me your damn ID. I won’t let RG see it, so she’ll still think you’re 50,” cajoled the younger man.

Hank struggled a little to remove his driver’s license from his wallet. Then he handed it over to the younger man, face down, indeed, so I couldn’t glimpse it.

“Jesus, Hank, it is your birthday! Why didn’t you let any of us know?” asked the younger man, his tone considerably softer.

“Hey, he told me!” I said smiling at the younger man as I put my arm around Hank’s shoulder. But Hank didn’t really respond back.

The younger man called over the bartender. “Guess what? It’s Hank’s birthday and he didn’t tell anyone but RG. Buy him a beer on me.”

“Hank, it’s your birthday?” asked the bartender, clearly surprised. “Man, happy birthday!” The second bartender walked over and wished the same.

“I don’t know,” said Hank, seemingly oblivious to the attention suddenly foisted on him. “Maybe he didn’t like it that I always called his brother Number One Son. But I only called him that because he was the first born.”

Hank and Number Five Son clearly had more issues with one another than sibling birth order. But I felt like I was intruding on very personal ground as Hank shared his disappointment over not hearing from his kid—a so-called kid who is probably my age and has kids my kids’ ages. I had often heard Hank refer to his sons and daughters and multiple grandchildren as “my tribe.” He loved them, clearly, but I’ve never known how often he ever sees them, given he is here and they live in various parts of the Northeast.

“I sure would have liked to have heard from him, though,” said Hank, lighting a cigarette. He paused, then winked at me, the flirtatious glint momentarily back in his eye. “But you’re gift enough stopping by tonight.”

I clinked my wine glass against his beer bottle.

A second later, the chef, the line cooks, several waiters and the manager converged on Hank as one of the bartenders presented a trio of desserts topped with a candle. We sang a loud and horribly off-tune rendition of “Happy Birthday,” and the chef gave Hank a huge bear hug. Hank smiled, rendered a little shy at this show playing out around him, honoring him.

We nibbled the desserts, and Hank was animated for a bit, then not. He glanced at his watch, and shook his head. “Must be the sugar,” he said to no one. “I never eat it, you know.”

“You feeling like you crashed a little?” asked the younger man, his tone striking just the right balance between concern and conversation.

“Yeah, a little. Must be the sugar.”

I was half past tired already. The emotional drain of past few days, coupled with long work hours on Sunday and Monday, meant this Wednesday night was over for me. Would that I could blame it on the sugar.

“Hank, I am headed out,” I told him. “But I am so glad I got to help celebrate your birthday tonight.”

“Thank you, my dear. It is always a pleasure when you keep company here with me.”

What a nice man. What a gentleman. What a shame Number Five Son couldn’t let his dad know that, too, just one night a year.

7 Comments for 'The Fifth Son'

  1.  
    L
    July 10, 2008 | 9:17 pm
     

    That was a very dear story.

    L.

  2.  
    July 10, 2008 | 10:53 pm
     

    RG, I’m not sure why, but that story resonated with me deeply tonight. I feel a tiny bit less afloat now. And even though we don’t really do birthdays in my family, I’m going to try to remember to call my mom in a few days and thank her for being born.

  3.  
    Mary
    July 10, 2008 | 11:08 pm
     

    RG, even if he didn’t say so, I think what you and the others did meant a lot. I’m thinking “Hank” may be a veteran and if he is, what you folks did added to the meaning for him.

    My aunt (one of two children) was a Number Five Son person, but we always loved her, even though we didn’t hear from her.

  4.  
    July 11, 2008 | 10:03 am
     

    What a story. I think you did a great thing getting everyone involved. My father and older brother hardly speak and I know how that bothers my dad. I hope Hank got his call while he was out, or maybe the next day.

  5.  
    Lisa
    July 11, 2008 | 1:40 pm
     

    That reminds me of my grandpa. I can still remember sitting in his kitchen holding his hand as he cried because his oldest son couldn’t be bothered to call him on his birthday, father’s day, christmas, nothing. And he kept asking me “Where did I go wrong?” To this day I still don’t have an answer

  6.  
    Augs
    July 11, 2008 | 2:29 pm
     

    excellent read.

  7.  
    Laura
    July 14, 2008 | 1:59 pm
     

    This story made me tear up while wasting a few moments at work. I am so glad you and everyone there were able to help him celebrate just a little.

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